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Dr. DeMarc Hickson

Dr. DeMarc Hickson

Takes the Helm at Us Helping Us

This past June, Us Helping Us, People Into Living (UHU) appointed Dr. DeMarc Anthony Hickson as the new Executive Director.  Dr. Hickson succeeds Dr. Ron Simmons, who served for nearly 25 years as the organization’s chief executive.  An academic and biostatistician by training, Dr. Hickson formerly served as the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of My Brother’s Keeper, Inc (MBK) and Open Arms Healthcare Center in Jackson, Mississippi. He also held a joint appointment as Associate Professor of Biostatistics in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the newly established School of Public Health at Jackson State University.

“The board of directors and staff welcome Dr. Hickson to UHU and are excited about this new era of leadership,” said A. Cornelius Baker, Chairman of the organization’s board who also chairs the Search and Transition Committee.  He further noted:  “We are in a critical time to end the HIV epidemic by 2030 and we look forward to working with Dr. Hickson to implement new strategies and technologies to improve the health and wellbeing of our community so no one is left behind.”

A graduate of Norfolk State University (B.S. in Applied Mathematics; 1999), and Emory University (M.S. – 2002, and Ph.D. – 2005 in Biostatistics), Dr. Hickson’s experience includes community-based participatory research, environmental and policy system changes that address the multilevel factors that impact HIV/AIDS, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions among racial and sexual minorities in the Southeastern United States. We chatted with Dr. Hickson during his first few days in this new position.

SWERV:  How do you feel about your appointment as Executive Director of UHU?

Dr. Hickson: I am grateful for the opportunity and faith that the UHU board of directors has placed in my selection.  It is humbling to succeed Dr. Ron Simmons in serving this nationally recognized organization.  In the coming year, I look forward to working with the staff to develop innovative strategies to carry UHU into the future.

SWERV: According to the CDC, African American gay and bisexual men are effected by HIV more than any other demographic group in America. What are your thoughts as to why this is the case?

Dr. Hickson: African American gay and bisexual men engage in lesser or equal levels of behaviors that place one at risk for HIV acquisition and transmission (we call this the Black MSM Paradox). However, African American MSM have an HIV environmental ‘riskscape’ (i.e., the set of individual, interpersonal, environmental and political factors that increase the susceptibility of HIV) that contributes to the higher incidence of HIV compared to white and Latino gay and bisexual men.

For example, the social and sexual networks of African American gay and bisexuals are salient contexts for HIV acquisition and transmission. A study among African American gay and bisexual demonstrated that men who reported having at least one sexual network member who does not fully disapprove of condomless anal sex were nearly 12 times more likely to engage in condom-less anal sex than men who do not have such a network member. This is very important because of the high HIV prevalence in the sexual networks of African American gay and bisexual men as well as the neighborhoods where these men live, which too often have a high prevalence of HIV.

In addition, African American gay and bisexual men are often disenfranchised with high rates of homelessness, incarceration, unemployment, poverty, abuse and other unfair treatments, and a lack of access and opportunity.

SWERV: What do you see as the role community based organizations (CBO) like Us Helping Us play in addressing this issue?

Dr. Hickson: CBOs like Us Helping Us play an extremely vital role in addressing HIV among African American gay and bisexual men in not only community education (increasing health and HIV literacy), mobilization and advocacy but in providing essential and support services in HIV prevention, treatment and care as well. CBOs are also key in being a voice for underserved, underrepresented and oftentimes marginalized populations in places and spaces such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute of Health (NIH), and local jurisdictions and bodies of decision-makers.

SWERV: Jurisdictions like San Francisco and New York City have observed initial success reducing the rates of new HIV infections. What can Washington, DC learn from these cities?

Dr. Hickson: These areas have coalesced around ending the epidemic (where some areas have developed ‘End the Epidemic Plans’) and have garnered a wealth of knowledge, resources and commitment from decision-makers who are gatekeepers to structural and political factors that place vulnerable populations at significant risk for HIV.  In addition, CBOs and healthcare providers have developed innovative programs (e.g., mHealth apps) to identify persons who are unaware of their infection and link them to culturally-relevant care, to reduce the community viral load in these areas (treatment as prevention), and to link at-risk persons who are HIV-uninfected to PrEP.

SWERV: Looking at the big picture, what will it take to get to a society with zero new HIV infections? And when do you predict that will occur?

Dr. Hickson: Finding a sterelizing cure will ultimately get us to zero new HIV infections, but until that time, we must develop and implement innovative programs to improve the HIV prevention and care continuum. I can see a potential discovery (e.g., intensive treatment during acute infection stage) in the next 3-5 years but not a vaccine/cure. I would predict getting to zero new HIV infections by 2030 (give or take 2 years).